Does the left still need transformation?

Strategy is weak without soul: readers react to openDemocracy’s newest section, and where it goes next.

Michael Edwards
29 August 2014

Credit: Minnesota Historical Society. All rights reserved.

When “What’s the matter with Kansas?” was published in 2005 by the writer Thomas Frank, I rushed out to buy it along with all my other left/progressive friends. The book promised to explain why so many blue-collar workers in the United States vote for Republicans when they’re ‘supposed’ to vote for Democrats, thereby reducing the supporter base for radical changes in society. At last, the secret to success…..

Frank’s explanation is that these voters are deluded into supporting a party that provides them with attractive religious and cultural references (like taking a stand against abortion), while ignoring the actual effects of Republican economic policies on the working- and middle classes - in other words, on themselves. Conversely, the Democrats bang on endlessly about rising inequality and declining real wages - the same old boring facts - while failing to connect with people on a deeper, emotional level by providing an overarching moral vision for the future. The same arguments could be made about traditional left parties in Europe.

I think much of this is true, but as an explanation for the absence of transformational constituencies in politics I don’t think it’s convincing.

For one thing, Democrats have been appealing to “attractive cultural references” for years - think ‘welfare scroungers’ or ‘let’s get-tough-on-immigration,’ for example. These tactics have done nothing to build support for radical positions. Instead, they’re part of a simplistic strategy to ‘build progressive power’ by aggregating votes around particular issues and identities. Even when this strategy produces electoral success, the ‘power’ that results is never used to overturn politics-as-usual - the endless round of influence peddling and deal making that limits government action to tinkering around the edges of economic and social problems.

In addition, cultural, religious and political differences remain deeply embedded in society, often resulting in combinations of beliefs that may seem surprising, as they were to Thomas Frank in Kansas. This can work against the advance of progressive ideas, but it also provides an opportunity to find more common ground. The Tea Party and Occupy aren't linked by much, for example, but they share a deep antipathy to ‘crony capitalism’ and spiraling military spending that has already found expression in some successful joint campaigns.  

While conventional politics revolve around the accumulation of formal power - almost inevitably concentrated in the same, small numbers of hands and becoming corrupted over time - transformational politics aim to reshape power relations at a much deeper level in order to open up the system to new ideas and possibilities. That’s why “pre-figurative politics” are so important: forms of political action that practice what they preach in the form of equality, democracy, transparency and deep listening. This was the central insight of Dr Martin Luther King and pretty much every progressive social movement: that only the fusion of personal and political change can ultimately transform the deep structures of self and society.

I’ve been thinking a lot about these questions lately, since I’ve been analyzing the results of a reader survey that was commissioned to gather feedback on Transformation, the newest section of openDemocracy that was launched on July 1st last year. Thanks to everyone who sent in their comments, which make for fascinating reading. The inadequacy of conventional left/progressive thinking emerges as a common theme in the responses, along with the need to explore how alternative forms of politics and social activism actually work or don’t work in practice - warts and all.

Readers say they value a number of things about the new section. First, it provides a space to think beyond reformism, even when the constraints on doing anything more radical are very strong. “Keep up your critiques of the charity sector, philanthropy and NGOs,” said one respondent, “along with the technocratic, corporatized brand of activism that’s gaining ground.” The same applies to the transformation community itself where these trends are also becoming more apparent – for example, in the use of meditation and ‘mindfulness’ in Silicon Valley and elsewhere in the corporate world. We can’t claim to be transforming anything if we’re not critical of ourselves.

Second, readers like the fact that the section presents both the theory and the practice of transformational alternatives, though there seems to be more interest in the latter than the former: the most positive reactions revolved around story-based journalism that shows what real people are doing in real situations. “The link between self-development and societal advancement is in itself a great contribution as it is covered nowhere else, to my knowledge, and it provides a unique view on a familiar question.”

But there’s a caveat: the balance between the ‘personal and the political’ in these stories has to be equal. “You have to overtly draw the links between structural violence of various kinds and how they play out in our lives.” “It’s good to focus on the personal but it has to remain completely inclusive” of all people and all notions of who and what is being transformed. That means pushing back against uniform notions of what it means to be ‘normal,’ a theme that came out of many of the articles that we’ve published on and from the LGBTQ community and around the “politics of mental health.”

Third - and linking back to “What’s the Matter with Kansas” - readers like the fact that the section explores every facet of human experience as a resource for radical change: art, poetry, theatre, storytelling, spirituality and personal development as well as the latest advances in social activism. Strategy is weak without soul, one might say, especially when the goal is to enlist large numbers of people in transformative thinking and action outside their existing comfort zones. Transformation is “almost unique in exploring the human dimensions of social change without being too New Age,” one reader said, “I love that love is central to everything.”

Transformation is undeniably an emotional experience as well as a political commitment, a message that contrasts powerfully with the narrow view of social change as policy change that infects so many political parties, trade unions, think-tanks and NGOs. “I tend to think of openDemocracy as more oriented towards a hard-headed mainstream policy discourse (which may be wrong) and I think the explorations into more risky and visionary possibilities is a very good thing” as one reader put it.

Respondents to the survey also suggested some useful tweaks: more series of inter-linked articles on the same theme like empathy, and the role of money; and more debates which deliberately set different views alongside each other, perhaps starting with the role of religion. “People self-medicate too much” as one reader put it, “everyone needs the experience of contrasting points of view.” A number of answers highlighted the need for more international material (i.e. views and voices from outside the US and Western Europe); along with a request that we should make more effort to link with other sections of openDemocracy when they publish transformational thinking of their own.

In general, however, the section received a big vote of confidence: 100 per cent of respondents said that we should carry on next year. So that’s what we’re going to do, and it means asking for your continued support as readers.

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All in all, Transformation has had a very good year, but we know our work is just beginning. As another reader said when answering the question “what do you like about the section?” “Its physical beauty, the promise now associated with that color yellow, the fact that I haven’t a clue where you might go next - and its always closer to home than I think.”

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